Solon and Lycurgus in the marquis de Sade

Few of us, I hope, will have spent our time turning the pages of the kind of literature written by and for the corrupt.  If you are what you eat, in body at least, then what does “what we read” make us?  We need to be at least as careful of what we let into our heads.  I myself could do without some of the images that have come my way down the years.

An interesting email reached me, however.

I was reading a copy of De Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom for a history class and I came across a reference to Solon’s using pornography in the theater as public moral conditioning.

I would like to find out if this is really true; and Wikipedia says the source is an excerpt form one of Philemon’s plays- but they wrongly attribute Menander’s The Brothers to Philemon.

The reference to the pornographic work of De Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, may be found easily enough online.  The French is here:

Lycurgue et Solon, bien pénétrés que les résultats de l’impudeur tiennent le citoyen dans l’état immoral essentiel aux lois du gouvernement républicain, obligèrent les jeunes filles à se montrer nues au théâtre[6].

The English translation reads:

Lycurgus and Solon, fully convinced that immodesty’s results are to keep the citizen in the immoral state indispensable to the mechanics of republican government, obliged girls to exhibit themselves naked at the theater.13

(The footnote is not a reference, unfortunately, but an elaboration).

I quickly found via Wikipedia that the 2nd century writer Athenaeus, in the Deipnosophists (= The foodies), book 13 (“Concerning Women”) (here), mentions that Solon established brothels at Athens, quoting the comic writer Philemon.

25. And Philemon, in his Brothers, relates that Solon at first, on account of the unbridled passions of the young, made a law that women might be brought to be prostituted at brothels; as Nicander of Colophon also states, in the third book of his History of the Affairs of Colophon, — saying that he first erected a temple to the Public Venus with the money which was earned by the women who were prostituted at these brothels. But Philemon speaks on this subject as follows : —

But you did well for every man, O Solon;
For they do say you were the first to see
The justice of a public-spirited measure,
The saviour of the state— (and it is fit
For me to utter this avowal, Solon) ; —
You, seeing that the state was full of men,
Young, and possess’d of all the natural appetites,
And wandering in their lusts where they’d no business,
Bought women, and in certain spots did place them,
Common to be, and ready for all comers.
They naked stand : look well at them, my youth, —
Do not deceive yourself; a’nt you well off?
You’re ready, so are they : the door is open —
The price an obol : enter straight — there is
No nonsense here, no cheat or trickery;
But do just what you like, and how you like.
You’re off: wish her good-bye; she ‘s no more claim on you.

The verse is satirical, of course, and perhaps we need not entertain this claim against Solon too seriously, particularly considering that it is being made six centuries after the supposed events.

But it’s not really the same story.

Searching further online for material about Athenian prostitution, I find suggestions that that prostitutes who danced and could provide entertainment were known as auletrides — the familiar ‘flute-players’ of ancient literature.  There is a History of Prostitution by William W. Sanger online, which on p.43 discusses (with references, thank heavens!) the miserable profession in ancient Greece.  But nothing in it associates Solon with any of this, beyond the reference in Athenaeus.

And there the trail goes cold.  Does anyone else know of anything to support the allegation of De Sade?


Leave a Reply